By Joseph Crosby Lincoln
Overhead the clouds cloaked the sky; a ragged cloak it was, and, here and there, a star shone through a hole, to be obscured almost instantly as more cloud tatters were hurled across the rent. The pines threshed on the hill tops. The bare branches of the wild-cherry and silverleaf trees scraped and rattled and tossed. And the wind, the raw, chilling December wind, driven in, wet and salty, from the sea, tore over the dunes and brown uplands and across the frozen salt-meadows, screamed through the telegraph wires, and made the platform of the dismal South Harniss railway station the lonesomest, coldest, darkest and most miserable spot on the face of the earth.
At least that was the opinion of the seventeen-year-old boy whom the down train—on time for once and a wonder—had just deposited upon that platform. He would not have discounted the statement one iota. The South Harniss station platform WAS the most miserable spot on earth and he was the most miserable human being upon it. And this last was probably true, for there were but three other humans upon that platform and, judging by externals, they seemed happy enough. One was the station agent, who was just entering the building preparatory to locking up for the night, and the others were Jim Young, driver of the "depot wagon," and Doctor Holliday, the South Harniss "homeopath," who had been up to a Boston hospital with a patient and was returning home. Jim was whistling "Silver Bells," a tune much in vogue the previous summer, and Doctor Holliday was puffing at a cigar and knocking his feet together to keep them warm while waiting to get into the depot wagon. These were the only people in sight and they were paying no attention whatever to the lonely figure at the other end of the platform.
The boy looked about him. The station, with its sickly yellow gleam of kerosene lamp behind its dingy windowpane, was apparently the only inhabited spot in a barren wilderness. At the edge of the platform civilization seemed to end and beyond was nothing but a black earth and a black sky, tossing trees and howling wind, and cold—raw, damp, penetrating cold. Compared with this even the stuffy plush seats and smelly warmth of the car he had just left appeared temptingly homelike and luxurious. All the way down from the city he had sneered inwardly at a one-horse railroad which ran no Pullmans on its Cape branch in winter time. Now he forgot his longing for mahogany veneer and individual chairs and would gladly have boarded a freight car, provided there were in it a lamp and a stove.
The light in the station was extinguished and the agent came out with a jingling bunch of keys and locked the door. "Good-night, Jim," he shouted, and walked off into the blackness. Jim responded with a "good-night" of his own and climbed aboard the wagon, into the dark interior of which the doctor had preceded him. The boy at the other end of the platform began to be really alarmed. It looked as if all living things were abandoning him and he was to be left marooned, to starve or freeze, provided he was not blown away first.
He picked up the suitcase—an expensive suitcase it was, elaborately strapped and buckled, with a telescope back and gold fittings—and hastened toward the wagon. Mr. Young had just picked up the reins.
"Oh,—oh, I say!" faltered the boy. We have called him "the boy" all this time, but he did not consider himself a boy, he esteemed himself a man, if not full-grown physically, certainly so mentally. A man, with all a man's wisdom, and more besides—the great, the all-embracing wisdom of his age, or youth.
"Here, I say! Just a minute!" he repeated. Jim Young put his head around the edge of the wagon curtain. "Eh?" he queried. "Eh? Who's talkin'? Oh, was it you, young feller? Did you want me?"
The young fellow replied that he did. "This is South Harniss, isn't it?" he asked.
Mr. Young chuckled. "Darn sure thing," he drawled. "I give in that it looks consider'ble like Boston, or Providence, R. I., or some of them capitols, but it ain't, it's South Harniss, Cape Cod."
Doctor Holliday, on the back seat of the depot wagon, chuckled. Jim did not; he never laughed at his own jokes. And his questioner did not chuckle, either.
"Does a—does a Mr. Snow live here?" he asked.
The answer was prompt, if rather indefinite. "Um-hm," said the driver. "No less'n fourteen of him lives here. Which one do you want?"
"A Mr. Z. Snow."
"Mr. Z. Snow, eh? Humph! I don't seem to recollect any Mr. Z. Snow around nowadays. There used to be a Ziba Snow, but he's dead. 'Twan't him you wanted, was it?"
"No. The one I want is—is a Captain Snow. Captain—" he paused before uttering the name which to his critical metropolitan ear had seemed so dreadfully countrified and humiliating; "Captain Zelotes Snow," he blurted, desperately.
Jim Young laughed aloud. "Good land, Doc!" he cried, turning toward his passenger; "I swan I clean forgot that Cap'n Lote's name begun with a Z. Cap'n Lote Snow? Why, darn sure! I . . . Eh?" He stopped short, evidently struck by a new idea. "Sho!" he drawled, slowly. "Why, I declare I believe you're . . . Yes, of course! I heard they was expectin' you. Doc, you know who 'tis, don't you? Cap'n Lote's grandson; Janie's boy."
He took the lighted lantern from under the wagon seat and held it up so that its glow shone upon the face of the youth standing by the wheel.
"Hum," he mused. "Don't seem to favor Janie much, does he, Doc. Kind of got her mouth and chin, though. Remember that sort of good-lookin' set to her mouth she had? And SHE got it from old Cap'n Lo himself. This boy's face must be more like his pa's, I cal'late. Don't you cal'late so, Doc?"
Whether Doctor Holliday cal'lated so or not he did not say. It may be that he thought this cool inspection of and discussion concerning a stranger, even a juvenile stranger, somewhat embarrassing to its object. Or the lantern light may have shown him an ominous pucker between the boy's black brows and a flash of temper in the big black eyes beneath them. At any rate, instead of replying to Mr. Young, he said, kindly:
"Yes, Captain Snow lives in the village. If you are going to his house get right in here. I live close by, myself."
"Darned sure!" agreed Mr. Young, with enthusiasm. "Hop right in, sonny."
But the boy hesitated. Then, haughtily ignoring the driver, he said: "I thought Captain Snow would be here to meet me. He wrote that he would."
The irrepressible Jim had no idea of remaining ignored. "Did Cap'n Lote write you that he'd be here to the depot?" he demanded. "All right, then he'll be here, don't you fret. I presume likely that everlastin' mare of his has eat herself sick again; eh, Doc? By godfreys domino, the way they pet and stuff that fool horse is a sin and a shame. It ain't Lote's fault so much as 'tis his wife's—she's responsible. Don't you fret, Bub, the cap'n'll be here for you some time to-night. If he said he'll come he'll come, even if he has to hire one of them limmysines. He, he, he! All you've got to do is wait, and . . . Hey! . . . Hold on a minute! . . . Bub!"
The boy was walking away. And to hail him as "Bub" was, although Jim Young did not know it, the one way least likely to bring him back.
"Bub!" shouted Jim again. Receiving no reply he added what he had intended saying. "If I run afoul of Cap'n Lote anywheres on the road," he called, "I'll tell him you're here a-waitin'. So long, Bub. Git dap, Chain Lightnin'."
The horse, thus complimented, pricked up one ear, lifted a foot, and jogged off. The depot wagon became merely a shadowy smudge against the darkness of the night. For a few minutes the "chock, chock" of the hoofs upon the frozen road and the rattle of wheels gave audible evidence of its progress. Then these died away and upon the windswept platform of the South Harniss station descended the black gloom of lonesomeness so complete as to make that which had been before seem, by comparison, almost cheerful.
The youth upon that platform turned up his coat collar, thrust his gloved hands into his pockets, and shivered. Then, still shivering, he took a brisk walk up and down beside the suitcase and, finally, circumnavigated the little station. The voyage of discovery was unprofitable; there was nothing to discover. So far as he could see—which was by no means far—upon each side of the building was nothing but bare fields and tossing pines, and wind and cold and blackness. He came to anchor once more by the suitcase and drew a long, hopeless breath.
He thought of the cheery dining room at the school he had left the day before. Dinner would be nearly over by now. The fellows were having dessert, or, probably, were filing out into the corridors, the younger chaps to go to the study hall and the older ones—the lordly seniors, of whom he had been one—on the way to their rooms. The picture of his own cheerful, gay room in the senior corridor was before his mind; of that room as it was before the telegram came, before the lawyer came with the letter, before the end of everything as he knew it and the beginning of—this. He had not always loved and longed for that school as he loved and longed for it now. There had been times when he referred to it as "the old jail," and professed to hate it. But it had been the only real home he had known since he was eight years old and now he looked back upon it as a fallen angel might have looked back upon Paradise. He sighed again, choked and hastily drew his gloved hand across his eyes. At the age of seventeen it is very unmanly to cry, but, at that age also, manhood and boyhood are closely intermingled. He choked again and then, squaring his shoulders, reached into his coat pocket for the silver cigarette case which, as a recent acquisition, was the pride of his soul. He had just succeeded in lighting a cigarette when, borne upon the wind, he heard once more the sound of hoofs and wheels and saw in the distance a speck of light advancing toward the station.
The sounds drew nearer, so did the light. Then an old-fashioned buggy, drawn by a plump little sorrel, pulled up by the platform and a hand held a lantern aloft.
"Hello!" hailed a voice. "Where are you?"
The hail did not have to be repeated. Before the vehicle reached the station the boy had tossed away the cigarette, picked up the suitcase, and was waiting. Now he strode into the lantern light.
"Here I am," he answered, trying hard not to appear too eager. "Were you looking for me?"
The holder of the lantern tucked the reins between the whip-socket and the dash and climbed out of the buggy. He was a little man, perhaps about forty-eight or fifty, with a smooth-shaven face wrinkled at the corners of the mouth and eyes. His voice was the most curious thing about him; it was high and piping, more like a woman's than a man's. Yet his words and manner were masculine enough, and he moved and spoke with a nervous, jerky quickness.
He answered the question promptly. "Guess I be, guess I be," he said briskly. "Anyhow, I'm lookin' for a boy name of—name of—My soul to heavens, I've forgot it again, I do believe! What did you say your name was?"
"Speranza. Albert Speranza."
"Sartin, sartin! Sper—er—um—yes, yes. Knew it just as well as I did my own. Well, well, well! Ye-es, yes, yes. Get right aboard, Alfred. Let me take your satchel."
He picked up the suitcase. The boy, his foot upon the buggy step, still hesitated. "Then you're—you're not my grandfather?" he faltered.
"Eh? Who? Your grandfather? Me? He, he, he!" He chuckled shrilly. "No, no! No such luck. If I was Cap'n Lote Snow, I'd be some older'n I be now and a dum sight richer. Yes, yes. No, I'm Cap'n Lote's bookkeeper over at the lumber consarn. He's got a cold, and Olive—that's his wife—she said he shouldn't come out to-night. He said he should, and while they was Katy-didin' back and forth about it, Rachel—Mrs. Ellis—she's the hired housekeeper there—she telephoned me to harness up and come meet you up here to the depot. Er—er—little mite late, wan't I?"
"Why, yes, just a little. The other man, the one who drives the mail cart—I think that was what it was—said perhaps the horse was sick, or something like that."
"No-o, no, that wan't it this time. I—er—All tucked in and warm enough, be you? Ye-es, yes, yes. No, I'm to blame, I shouldn't wonder. I stopped at the—at the store a minute and met one or two of the fellers, and that kind of held me up. All right now? Ye-es, yes, yes. G'long, gal."
The buggy moved away from the platform. Its passenger, his chilly feet and legs tightly wrapped in the robes, drew a breath of relief between his chattering teeth. He was actually going somewhere at last; whatever happened, morning would not find him propped frozen stiff against the scarred and mangy clapboards of the South Harniss station.
"Warm enough, be you?" inquired his driver cheerfully.
"Yes, thank you."
"That's good, that's good, that's good. Ye-es, yes, yes. Well—er—Frederick, how do you think you're goin' to like South Harniss?"
The answer was rather non-committal. The boy replied that he had not seen very much of it as yet. His companion seemed to find the statement highly amusing. He chuckled and slapped his knee.
"Ain't seen much of it, eh? No-o, no, no. I guess you ain't, guess you ain't. He, he, he . . . Um . . . Let's see, what was I talkin' about?"
"Why, nothing in particular, I think, Mr.—Mr.—"
"Didn't I tell you my name? Sho, sho! That's funny. My name's Keeler—Laban B. Keeler. That's my name and bookkeeper is my station. South Harniss is my dwellin' place—and I guess likely you'll have to see the minister about the rest of it. He, he, he!"
His passenger, to whom the old schoolbook quatrain was entirely unknown, wondered what on earth the man was talking about. However, he smiled politely and sniffed with a dawning suspicion. It seemed to him there was an unusual scent in the air, a spirituous scent, a—
"Have a peppermint lozenger," suggested Mr. Keeler, with sudden enthusiasm. "Peppermint is good for what ails you, so they tell me. Ye-es, yes, yes. Have one. Have two, have a lot."
He proceeded to have a lot himself, and the buggy was straightway reflavored, so to speak. The boy, his suspicions by no means dispelled, leaned back in the corner behind the curtains and awaited developments. He was warmer, that was a real physical and consequently a slight mental comfort, but the feeling of lonesomeness was still acute. So far his acquaintanceship with the citizens of South Harniss had not filled him with enthusiasm. They were what he, in his former and very recent state of existence, would have called "Rubes." Were the grandparents whom he had never met this sort of people? It seemed probable. What sort of a place was this to which Fate had consigned him? The sense of utter helplessness which had had him in its clutches since the day when he received the news of his father's death was as dreadfully real as ever. He had not been consulted at all. No one had asked him what he wished to do, or where he wished to go. The letter had come from these people, the Cape Cod grandparents of whom, up to that time, he had never even heard, and he had been shipped to them as though he were a piece of merchandise. And what was to become of him now, after he reached his destination? What would they expect him to do? Or be? How would he be treated?
In his extensive reading—he had been an omnivorous reader—there were numerous examples of youths left, like him, to the care of distant relatives, or step-parents, or utter strangers. Their experiences, generally speaking, had not been cheerful ones. Most of them had run away. He might run away; but somehow the idea of running away, with no money, to face hardship and poverty and all the rest, did not make an alluring appeal. He had been used to comfort and luxury ever since he could remember, and his imagination, an unusually active one, visualized much more keenly than the average the tribulations and struggles of a runaway. David Copperfield, he remembered, had run away, but he did it when a kid, not a man like himself. Nicholas Nickleby—no, Nicholas had not run away exactly, but his father had died and he had been left to an uncle. It would be dreadful if his grandfather should turn out to be a man like Ralph Nickleby. Yet Nicholas had gotten on well in spite of his wicked relative. Yes, and how gloriously he had defied the old rascal, too! He wondered if he would ever be called upon to defy his grandfather. He saw himself doing it—quietly, a perfect gentleman always, but with the noble determination of one performing a disagreeable duty. His chin lifted and his shoulders squared against the back of the buggy.
Mr. Keeler, who had apparently forgotten his passenger altogether, broke into song,
"She's my darlin' hanky-panky And she wears a number two, Her father keeps a barber shop Way out in Kalamazoo."
He sang the foregoing twice over and then added a chorus, plainly improvised, made up of "Di doos" and "Di dums" ad lib. And the buggy rolled up and over the slope of a little hill and, in the face of a screaming sea wind, descended a long, gentle slope to where, scattered along a two-mile water frontage, the lights of South Harniss twinkled sparsely.
"Did doo dum, dee dum, doo dum Di doo dum, doo dum dee."
So sang Mr. Keeler. Then he broke off his solo as the little mare turned in between a pair of high wooden posts bordering a drive, jogged along that drive for perhaps fifty feet, and stopped beside the stone step of a white front door. Through the arched window above that door shone lamplight warm and yellow.
"Whoa!" commanded Mr. Keeler, most unnecessarily. Then, as if himself a bit uncertain as to his exact whereabouts, he peered out at the door and the house of which it was a part, afterward settling back to announce triumphantly: "And here we be! Yes, sir, here we be!"
Then the door opened. A flood of lamplight poured upon the buggy and its occupants. And the boy saw two people standing in the doorway, a man and a woman.
It was the woman who spoke first. It was she who had opened the door. The man was standing behind her looking over her shoulder—over her head really, for he was tall and broad and she short and slender.
"Is it—?" she faltered.
Mr. Keeler answered. "Yes, ma'am," he declared emphatically, "that's who 'tis. Here we be—er—er—what's-your-name—Edward. Jump right out."
His passenger alighted from the buggy. The woman bent forward to look at him, her hands clasped.
"It—it's Albert, isn't it?" she asked.
The boy nodded. "Yes," he said.
The hands unclasped and she held them out toward him. "Oh, Albert," she cried, "I'm your grandmother. I—"
The man interrupted. "Wait till we get him inside, Olive," he said. "Come in, son." Then, addressing the driver, he ordered: "Labe, take the horse and team out to the barn and unharness for me, will you?"
"Ye-es, yes, yes," replied Mr. Keeler. "Yes indeed, Cap'n. Take her right along—right off. Yes indeedy. Git dap!"
He drove off toward the end of the yard, where a large building, presumably a barn, loomed black against the dark sky. He sang as he drove and the big man on the step looked after him and sniffed suspiciously.
Meanwhile the boy had followed the little woman into the house through a small front hall, from which a narrow flight of stairs shot aloft with almost unbelievable steepness, and into a large room. Albert had a swift impression of big windows full of plants, of pictures of ships and schooners on the walls, of a table set for four.
"Take your things right off," cried his grandmother. "Here, I'll take 'em. There! now turn 'round and let me look at you. Don't move till I get a good look."
He stood perfectly still while she inspected him from head to foot.
"You've got her mouth," she said slowly. "Yes, you've got her mouth. Her hair and eyes were brown and yours are black, but—but I THINK you look like her. Oh, I did so want you to! May I kiss you, Albert? I'm your grandmother, you know."
With embarrassed shyness he leaned forward while she put her arms about his neck and kissed him on the cheek. As he straightened again he became aware that the big man had entered the room and was regarding him intently beneath a pair of shaggy gray eyebrows. Mrs. Snow turned.
"Oh, Zelotes," she cried, "he's got Janie's mouth, don't you think so? And he DOES look like her, doesn't he?"
Her husband shook his head. "Maybe so, Mother," he said, with a half smile. "I ain't a great hand for locatin' who folks look like. How are you, boy? Glad to see you. I'm your grandfather, you know."
They shook hands, while each inspected and made a mental estimate of the other. Albert saw a square, bearded jaw, a firm mouth, gray eyes with many wrinkles at the corners, and a shock of thick gray hair. The eyes had a way of looking straight at you, through you, as if reading your thoughts, divining your motives and making a general appraisal of you and them.
Captain Zelotes Snow, for his part, saw a tall young fellow, slim and straight, with black curly hair, large black eyes and regular features. A good-looking boy, a handsome boy—almost too handsome, perhaps, or with just a touch of the effeminate in the good looks. The captain's glance took in the well-fitting suit of clothes, the expensive tie, the gold watch chain.
"Humph!" grunted Captain Zelotes. "Well, your grandma and I are glad to have you with us. Let me see, Albert—that's your right name, ain't it—Albert?"
Something in his grandfather's looks or tone aroused a curious feeling in the youth. It was not a feeling of antagonism, exactly, but more of defiance, of obstinacy. He felt as if this big man, regarding him so keenly from under the heavy brows, was looking for faults, was expecting to find something wrong, might almost be disappointed if he did not find it. He met the gaze for a moment, the color rising to his cheeks.
"My name," he said deliberately, "is Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza."
Mrs. Snow uttered a little exclamation. "Oh!" she ejaculated. And then added: "Why—why, I thought—we—we understood 'twas 'Albert.' We didn't know there was—we didn't know there was any more to it. What did you say it was?"
Her grandson squared his shoulders. "Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza," he repeated. "My father"—there was pride in his voice now—"my father's name was Miguel Carlos. Of course you knew that."
He spoke as if all creation must have known it. Mrs. Snow looked helplessly at her husband. Captain Zelotes rubbed his chin.
"We—ll," he drawled dryly, "I guess likely we'll get along with 'Albert' for a spell. I cal'late 'twill come more handy to us Cape folks. We're kind of plain and everyday 'round here. Sapper's ready, ain't it, Mother? Al must be hungry. I'm plaguey sure I am."
"But, Zelotes, maybe he'd like to go up to his bedroom first. He's been ridin' a long ways in the cars and maybe he'd like to wash up or change his clothes?"
"Change his clothes! Lord sakes, Olive, what would he want to change his clothes this time of night for? You don't want to change your clothes, do you, boy?"
"No, sir, I guess not."
"Sartin sure you don't. Want to wash? There's a basin and soap and towel right out there in the kitchen."
He pointed to the kitchen door. At that moment the door was partially opened and a brisk feminine voice from behind it inquired: "How about eatin'? Are you all ready in there?"
It was Captain Snow who answered.
"You bet we are, Rachel!" he declared. "All ready and then some. Trot her out. Sit down, Mother. Sit down, Al. Now then, Rachel, all aboard."
Rachel, it appeared, was the owner of the brisk feminine voice just mentioned. She was brisk herself, as to age about forty, plump, rosy and very business-like. She whisked the platter of fried mackerel and the dishes of baked potatoes, stewed corn, hot biscuits and all the rest, to the table is no time, and then, to Albert's astonishment, sat down at that table herself. Mrs. Snow did the honors.
"Albert," she said, "this is Mrs. Ellis, who helps me keep house. Rachel, this is my grandson, Albert—er—Speranza."
She pronounced the surname in a tone almost apologetic. Mrs. Ellis did not attempt to pronounce it. She extended a plump hand and observed: "Is that so? Real glad to know you, Albert. How do you think you're goin' to like South Harniss?"
Considering that his acquaintance with the village had been so decidedly limited, Albert was somewhat puzzled how to reply. His grandfather saved him the trouble.
"Lord sakes, Rachel," he declared, "he ain't seen more'n three square foot of it yet. It's darker'n the inside of a nigger's undershirt outdoors to-night. Well, Al—Albert, I mean, how are you on mackerel? Pretty good stowage room below decks? About so much, eh?"
Mrs. Snow interrupted.
"Zelotes," she said reprovingly, "ain't you forgettin' somethin'?"
"Eh? Forgettin'? Heavens to Betsy, so I am! Lord, we thank thee for these and all other gifts, Amen. What did I do with the fork; swallow it?"
As long as he lives Albert Speranza will not forget that first meal in the home of his grandparents. It was so strange, so different from any other meal he had ever eaten. The food was good and there was an abundance of it, but the surroundings were so queer. Instead of the well-ordered and sedate school meal, here all the eatables from fish to pie were put upon the table at the same time and the servant—or housekeeper, which to his mind were one and the same—sat down, not only to eat with the family, but to take at least an equal part in the conversation. And the conversation itself was so different. Beginning with questions concerning his own journey from the New York town where the school was located, it at length reached South Harniss and there centered about the diminutive person of Laban Keeler, his loquacious and tuneful rescuer from the platform of the railway station.
"Where are your things, Albert?" asked Mrs. Snow. "Your trunk or travelin' bag, or whatever you had, I mean?"
"My trunks are coming by express," began the boy. Captain Zelotes interrupted him.
"Your trunks?" he repeated. "Got more'n one, have you?"
"Why—why, yes, there are three. Mr. Holden—he is the headmaster, you know—"
"Eh? Headmaster? Oh, you mean the boss teacher up there at the school? Yes, yes. Um-hm."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Holden says the trunks should get here in a few days."
Mrs. Ellis, the housekeeper, made the next remark. "Did I understand you to say you had THREE trunks?" she demanded.
"Three trunks for one boy! For mercy sakes, what have you got in 'em?"
"Why—why, my things. My clothes and—and—everything."
"Everything, or just about, I should say. Goodness gracious me, when I go up to Boston I have all I can do to fill up one trunk. And I'm bigger'n you are—bigger 'round, anyway."
There was no doubt about that. Captain Zelotes laughed shortly.
"That statement ain't what I'd call exaggerated, Rachel," he declared. "Every time I see you and Laban out walkin' together he has to keep on the sunny side or be in a total eclipse. And, by the way, speakin' of Laban—Say, son, how did you and he get along comin' down from the depot?"
"All right. It was pretty dark."
"I'll bet you! Laban wasn't very talkative, was he?"
"Why, yes, sir, he talked a good deal but he sang most of the time."
This simple statement appeared to cause a most surprising sensation. The Snows and their housekeeper looked at each other. Captain Zelotes leaned back in his chair and whistled.
"Whew!" he observed. "Hum! Sho! Thunderation!"
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed his wife.
Mrs. Ellis, the housekeeper, drew a long breath. "I might have expected it," she said tartly. "It's past time. He's pretty nigh a month overdue, as 'tis."
Captain Snow rose to his feet. "I was kind of suspicious when he started for the barn," he declared. "Seemed to me he was singin' then. WHAT did he sing, boy?" he asked, turning suddenly upon his grandson.
"Why—why, I don't know. I didn't notice particularly. You see, it was pretty cold and—"
Mrs. Ellis interrupted. "Did he sing anything about somebody's bein' his darlin' hanky-panky and wearin' a number two?" she demanded sharply.
"Why—why, yes, he did."
Apparently that settled it. Mrs. Snow said, "Oh, dear!" again and the housekeeper also rose from the table.
"You'd better go right out to the barn this minute, Cap'n Lote," she said, "and I guess likely I'd better go with you."
The captain already had his cap on his head.
"No, Rachel," he said, "I don't need you. Cal'late I can take care of 'most anything that's liable to have happened. If he ain't put the bridle to bed in the stall and hung the mare up on the harness pegs I judge I can handle the job. Wonder how fur along he'd got. Didn't hear him singin' anything about 'Hyannis on the Cape,' did you, boy?"
"That's some comfort. Now, don't you worry, Mother. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Mrs. Snow clasped her hands. "Oh, I HOPE he hasn't set the barn afire," she wailed.
"No danger of that, I guess. No, Rachel, you 'tend to your supper. I don't need you."
He tramped out into the hall and the door closed behind him. Mrs. Snow turned apologetically to her puzzled grandson, who was entirely at a loss to know what the trouble was about.
"You see, Albert," she hesitatingly explained, "Laban—Mr. Keeler—the man who drove you down from the depot—he—he's an awful nice man and your grandfather thinks the world and all of him, but—but every once in a while he—Oh, dear, I don't know how to say it to you, but—"
Evidently Mrs. Ellis knew how to say it, for she broke into the conversation and said it then and there.
"Every once in a while he gets tipsy," she snapped. "And I only wish I had my fingers this minute in the hair of the scamp that gave him the liquor."
A light broke upon Albert's mind. "Oh! Oh, yes!" he exclaimed. "I thought he acted a little queer, and once I thought I smelt—Oh, that was why he was eating the peppermints!"
Mrs. Snow nodded. There was a moment of silence. Suddenly the housekeeper, who had resumed her seat in compliance with Captain Zelotes' order, slammed back her chair and stood up.
"I've hated the smell of peppermint for twenty-two year," she declared, and went out into the kitchen. Albert, looking after her, felt his grandmother's touch upon his sleeve.
"I wouldn't say any more about it before her," she whispered. "She's awful sensitive."
Why in the world the housekeeper should be particularly sensitive because the man who had driven him from the station ate peppermint was quite beyond the boy's comprehension. Nor could he thoroughly understand why the suspicion of Mr. Keeler's slight inebriety should cause such a sensation in the Snow household. He was inclined to think the tipsiness rather funny. Of course alcohol was lectured against often enough at school and on one occasion a member of the senior class—a twenty-year-old "hold-over" who should have graduated the fall before—had been expelled for having beer in his room; but during his long summer vacations, spent precariously at hotels or in short visits to his father's friends, young Speranza had learned to be tolerant. Tolerance was a necessary virtue in the circle surrounding Speranza Senior, in his later years. The popping of corks at all hours of the night and bottles full, half full or empty, were sounds and sights to which Albert had been well accustomed. When one has more than once seen his own father overcome by conviviality and the affair treated as a huge joke, one is not inclined to be too censorious when others slip. What if the queer old Keeler guy was tight? Was that anything to raise such a row about?
Plainly, he decided, this was a strange place, this household of his grandparents. His premonition that they might be "Rubes" seemed likely to have been well founded. What would his father—his great, world-famous father—have thought of them? "Bah! these Yankee bourgeoisie!" He could almost hear him say it. Miguel Carlos Speranza detested—in private—the Yankee bourgeoisie. He took their money and he married one of their daughters, but he detested them. During his last years, when the money had not flowed his way as copiously, the detest grew.
"You won't say anything about Laban before Mrs. Ellis, will you, Albert?" persisted Mrs. Snow. "She's dreadful sensitive. I'll explain by and by."
He promised, repressing a condescending smile.
Both the housekeeper and Captain Snow returned in a few minutes. The latter reported that the mare was safe and sound in her stall.
"The harness was mostly on the floor, but Jess was all right, thank the Lord," observed the captain.
"Jess is our horse's name, Albert," explained Mrs. Snow. "That is, her name's Jessamine, but Zelotes can't ever seem to say the whole of any name. When we first bought Jessamine I named her Magnolia, but he called her 'Mag' all the time and I COULDN'T stand that. Have some more preserves, Albert, do."
All through the meal Albert was uneasily conscious that his grandfather was looking at him from under the shaggy brows, measuring him, estimating him, reading him through and through. He resented the scrutiny and the twinkle of sardonic humor which, it seemed to him, accompanied it. His way of handling his knife and fork, his clothes, his tie, his manner of eating and drinking and speaking, all these Captain Zelotes seemed to note and appraise. But whatever the results of his scrutiny and appraisal might be he kept them entirely to himself. When he addressed his grandson directly, which was not often, his remarks were trivial commonplaces and, although pleasant enough, were terse and to the point.
Several times Mrs. Snow would have questioned Albert concerning the life at school, but each time her husband interfered.
"Not now, not now, Mother," he said. "The boy ain't goin' to run away to-night. He'll be here to-morrow and a good many to-morrows, if"—and here again Albert seemed to detect the slight sarcasm and the twinkle—"if we old-fashioned 'down easters' ain't too common and every-day for a high-toned young chap like him to put up with. No, no, don't make him talk to-night. Can't you see he's so sleepy that it's only the exercise of openin' his mouth to eat that keeps his eyes from shuttin'? How about that, son?"
It was perfectly true. The long train ride, the excitement, the cold wait on the station platform and the subsequent warmth of the room, the hearty meal, all these combined to make for sleepiness so overpowering that several times the boy had caught his nose descending toward his plate in a most inelegant nod. But it hurt his pride to think his grandfather had noticed his condition.
"Oh, I'm all right," he said, with dignity.
Somehow the dignity seemed to have little effect upon Captain Zelotes.
"Um—yes, I know," observed the latter dryly, "but I guess likely you'll be more all right in bed. Mother, you'll show Albert where to turn in, won't you? There's your suitcase out there in the hall, son. I fetched it in from the barn just now."
Mrs. Snow ventured a protest.
"Oh, Zelotes," she cried, "ain't we goin' to talk with him at ALL? Why, there is so much to say!"
"'Twill say just as well to-morrow mornin', Mother; better, because we'll have all day to say it in. Get the lamp."
Albert looked at his watch.
"Why, it's only half-past nine," he said.
Captain Zelotes, who also had been looking at the watch, which was a very fine and very expensive one, smiled slightly. "Half-past nine some nights," he said, "is equal to half-past twelve others. This is one of the some. There, there, son, you're so sleepy this minute that you've got a list to starboard. When you and I have that talk that's comin' to us we want to be shipshape and on an even keel. Rachel, light that lamp."
The housekeeper brought in and lighted a small hand lamp. Mrs. Snow took it and led the way to the hall and the narrow, breakneck flight of stairs. Captain Zelotes laid a hand on his grandson's shoulder.
"Good-night, son," he said quietly.
Albert looked into the gray eyes. Their expression was not unkindly, but there was, or he imagined there was, the same quizzical, sardonic twinkle. He resented that twinkle more than ever; it made him feel very young indeed, and correspondingly obstinate. Something of that obstinacy showed in his own eyes as he returned his grandfather's look.
"Good-night—sir," he said, and for the life of him he could not resist hesitating before adding the "sir." As he climbed the steep stairs he fancied he heard a short sniff or chuckle—he was not certain which—from the big man in the dining-room.
His bedroom was a good-sized room; that is, it would have been of good size if the person who designed it had known what the term "square" meant. Apparently he did not, and had built the apartment on the hit-or-miss, higglety-pigglety pattern, with unexpected alcoves cut into the walls and closets and chimneys built out from them. There were three windows, a big bed, an old-fashioned bureau, a chest of drawers, a washstand, and several old-fashioned chairs. Mrs. Snow put the lamp upon the bureau. She watched him anxiously as he looked about the room.
"Do—do you like it?" she asked.
Albert replied that he guessed he did. Perhaps there was not too much certainty in his tone. He had never before seen a room like it.
"Oh, I hope you will like it! It was your mother's room, Albert. She slept here from the time she was seven until—until she went away."
The boy looked about him with a new interest, an odd thrill. His mother's room. His mother. He could just remember her, but that was all. The memories were childish and unsatisfactory, but they were memories. And she had slept there; this had been her room when she was a girl, before she married, before—long before such a person as Alberto Miguel Carlos Speranza had been even dreamed of. That was strange, it was queer to think about. Long before he was born, when she was years younger than he as he stood there now, she had stood there, had looked from those windows, had—
His grandmother threw her arms about his neck and kissed him. Her cheek was wet.
"Good-night, Albert," she said chokingly, and hurried out of the room.
He undressed quickly, for the room was very cold. He opened the window, after a desperate struggle, and climbed into bed. The wind, whistling in, obligingly blew out the lamp for him. It shrieked and howled about the eaves and the old house squeaked and groaned. Albert pulled the comforter up about his neck and concentrated upon the business of going to sleep. He, who could scarcely remember when he had had a real home, was desperately homesick.
Downstairs in the dining-room Captain Zelotes stood, his hands in his pockets, looking through the mica panes of the stove door at the fire within. His wife came up behind him and laid a hand on his sleeve.
"What are you thinkin' about, Father?" she asked.
Her husband shook his head. "I was wonderin'," he said, "what my granddad, the original Cap'n Lote Snow that built this house, would have said if he'd known that he'd have a great-great-grandson come to live in it who was," scornfully, "a half-breed."
Olive's grip tightened on his arm.
"Oh, DON'T talk so, Zelotes," she begged. "He's our Janie's boy."
The captain opened the stove door, regarded the red-hot coals for an instant, and then slammed the door shut again.
"I know, Mother," he said grimly. "It's for the sake of Janie's half that I'm takin' in the other."
"But—but, Zelotes, don't you think he seems like a nice boy?"
The twinkle reappeared in Captain Lote's eyes.
"I think HE thinks he's a nice boy, Mother," he said. "There, there, let's go to bed."
The story of the events which led up to the coming, on this December night, of a "half-breed" grandson to the Snow homestead, was an old story in South Harniss. The date of its beginning was as far back as the year 1892.
In the fall of that year Captain Zelotes Snow was in Savannah. He was in command of the coasting schooner Olive S. and the said schooner was then discharging a general cargo, preparatory to loading with rice and cotton for Philadelphia. With the captain in Savannah was his only daughter, Jane Olivia, age a scant eighteen, pretty, charming, romantic and head over heels in love with a handsome baritone then singing in a popular-priced grand opera company. It was because of this handsome baritone, who, by the way, was a Spaniard named Miguel Carlos Speranza, that Jane Snow was then aboard her father's vessel. Captain Lote was not in the habit of taking his women-folks on his voyages with him. "Skirts clutter up the deck too much," was his opinion.
He had taken Jane, however, not only on this voyage, but on that preceding it, which had been to Rio. It was Captain Lote's belief, and his wife's hope, that a succession of sea winds might blow away recollections of Senor Speranza—"fan the garlic out of her head," as the captain inelegantly expressed it. Jane had spent her sixteenth and seventeenth years at a school for girls near Boston. The opera company of which Speranza was a member was performing at one of the minor theaters. A party of the school girls, duly chaperoned and faculty-guarded, of course, attended a series of matinees. At these matinees Jane first saw her hero, brave in doublet and hose, and braver still in melody and romance. She and her mates looked and listened and worshiped from afar, as is the habit of maidenly youth under such circumstances. There is no particular danger in such worship provided the worshiper remains always at a safely remote distance from the idol. But in Jane's case this safety-bar was removed by Fate. The wife of a friend of her father's, the friend being a Boston merchant named Cole with whom Captain Zelotes had had business dealings for many years, was a music lover. She was in the habit of giving what she was pleased to call "musical teas" at her home. Jane, to whom Mr. and Mrs. Cole had taken a marked fancy, was often invited to those teas and, because the Coles were "among our nicest people," she was permitted by the school authorities to attend.
At one of those teas Senor Miguel Carlos Speranza was the brightest star. The Senor, then in his twenty-ninth year, handsome, talented and picturesque, shone refulgent. Other and far more experienced feminine hearts than Jane Snow's were flutteringly disturbed by the glory of his rays. Jane and he met, they shook hands, they conversed. And at subsequent teas they met again, for Speranza, on his part, was strongly attracted to the simple, unaffected Cape Cod schoolgirl. It was not her beauty alone—though beauty she had and of an unusual type—it was something else, a personality which attracted all who met her. The handsome Spaniard had had many love affairs of a more or less perfunctory kind, but here was something different, something he had not known. He began by exerting his powers of fascination in a lazy, careless way. To his astonishment the said powers were not overwhelming. If Jane was fascinated she was not conquered. She remained sweet, simple, direct, charmingly aloof.
And Speranza was at first puzzled, then piqued, then himself madly fascinated. He wrote fervid letters, he begged for interviews, he haunted each one of Mrs. Cole's "teas." And, at last, he wrung from Jane a confession of her love, her promise to marry him. And that very week Miss Donaldson, the head of the school, discovered and read a package of the Senor's letters to her pupil.
Captain Zelotes happened to be at home from a voyage. Being summoned from South Harniss, he came to Boston and heard the tale from Miss Donaldson's agitated lips. Jane was his joy, his pride; her future was the great hope and dream of his life. WHEN she married—which was not to be thought of for an indefinite number of years to come—she would of course marry a—well, not a President of the United States, perhaps—but an admiral possibly, or a millionaire, or the owner of a fleet of steamships, or something like that. The idea that she should even think of marrying a play-actor was unbelievable. The captain had never attended the performance of an opera; what was more, he never expected to attend one. He had been given to understand that a "parcel of play-actin' men and women hollered and screamed to music for a couple of hours." Olive, his wife, had attended an opera once and, according to her, it was more like a cat fight than anything else. Nobody but foreigners ever had anything to do with operas. And for foreigners of all kinds—but the Latin variety of foreigner in particular—Captain Zelotes Snow cherished a detest which was almost fanatic.
And now his daughter, his own Janie, was receiving ardent love letters from a play-acting foreigner, a Spaniard, a "Portygee," a "macaroni-eater"! When finally convinced that it was true, that the letters had really been written to Jane, which took some time, he demanded first of all to be shown the "Portygee." Miss Donaldson could not, of course, produce the latter forthwith, but she directed her irate visitor to the theater where the opera company was then performing. To the theater Captain Zelotes went. He did not find Speranza there, but from a frightened attendant he browbeat the information that the singer was staying at a certain hotel. So the captain went to the hotel. It was eleven o'clock in the morning, Senor Speranza was in bed and could not be disturbed. Couldn't, eh? By the great and everlasting et cetera and continued he was going to be disturbed then and there. And unless some of the hotel's "hired help" set about the disturbing it would be done for them. So, rather than summon the police, the hotel management summoned its guest, and the first, and only, interview between the father and lover of Jane Snow took place.
It was not a long interview, but it was spirited. Captain Zelotes began by being what he considered diplomatic. Having assured his wife before leaving home, and the alarmed Miss Donaldson subsequently, that there was to be no trouble whatever—everything would be settled as smooth and easy as slidin' downhill; "that feller won't make any fuss, you'll see"—having thus prophesied, the captain felt it incumbent upon himself to see to the fulfillment. So he began by condescendingly explaining that of course he was kind of sorry for the young man before him, young folks were young folks and of course he presumed likely 'twas natural enough, and the like of that, you understand. But of course also Mr. Speranza must realize that the thing could not go on any further. Jane was his daughter and her people were nice people, and naturally, that being the case, her mother and he would be pretty particular as to who she kept company with, to say nothing of marrying, which event was not to be thought of for ten years, anyway. Now he didn't want to be—er—personal or anything like that, and of course he wouldn't think of saying that Mr. Speranza wasn't a nice enough man for—well, for—for . . . You see, everybody wasn't as particular as he and Mrs. Snow were. But—
Here Senor Speranza interrupted. He politely desired to know if the person speaking was endeavoring to convey the idea that he, Miguel Carlos Speranza, was not of sufficient poseetion, goodness, standing, what it is? to be considered as suitor for that person's daughter's hand. Did Meester Snow comprehend to whom he addressed himself?
The interview terminated not long after. The captain's parting remark was in the nature of an ultimatum. It was to the effect that if Speranza, or any other condemned undesirable like him, dared to so much as look in the direction of Jane Olivia Snow, his daughter, he personally would see that the return for that look was a charge of buckshot. Speranza, white-faced and furiously gesticulative, commanded the astonished bellboy to put that "Bah! pig-idiot!" out into the hall and air the room immediately afterward.
Having, as he considered, satisfactorily attended to the presumptuous lover, Captain Zelotes returned to the school and to what he believed would be the comparatively easy task, the bringing of his daughter to reason. Jane had always been an obedient girl, she was devoted to her parents. Of course, although she might feel rather disappointed at first, she would soon get over it. The idea that she might flatly refuse to get over it, that she might have a will of her own, and a determination equal to that of the father from whom she inherited it, did not occur to the captain at all.
But his enlightenment was prompt and complete. Jane did not rage or become hysterical, she did not even weep in his presence. But, quietly, with a set of her square little chin, she informed Captain Zelotes that she loved Speranza, that she meant to marry him and that she should marry him, some day or other. The captain raged, commanded, pleaded, begged. What was the matter with her? What had come over her? Didn't she love her father and mother any more that she should set out to act this way? Yes, she declared that she loved them as much as ever, but that she loved her lover more than all the world, and no one—not even her parents—should separate them.
Captain Zelotes gave it up at last. That is, he gave up the appeal to reason and the pleadings. But he did not give up the idea of having his own way in the matter; being Zelotes Snow, he certainly did not give that up. Instead he took his daughter home with him to South Harniss, where a tearful and heart-broken Olive added her persuasions to his. But, when she found Jane obdurate, Mrs. Snow might have surrendered. Not her husband, however. Instead he conceived a brilliant idea. He was about to start on a voyage to Rio Janeiro; he would take his wife and daughter with him. Under their immediate observation and far removed from the influence of "that Portygee," Jane would be in no danger and might forget.
Jane made no remonstrance. She went to Rio and returned. She was always calm, outwardly pleasant and quiet, never mentioned her lover unless in answer to a question; but she never once varied from her determination not to give him up. The Snows remained at home for a month. Then Zelotes, Jane accompanying him, sailed from Boston to Savannah. Olive did not go with them; she hated the sea and by this time both she and her husband were somewhat reassured. So far as they could learn by watchful observation of their daughter, the latter had not communicated with Speranza nor received communications from him. If she had not forgotten him it seemed likely that he had forgotten her. The thought made the captain furiously angry, but it comforted him, too.
During the voyage to Savannah this sense of comfort became stronger. Jane seemed in better spirits. She was always obedient, but now she began to seem almost cheerful, to speak, and even laugh occasionally just as she used to. Captain Zelotes patted himself on the back, figuratively. His scheme had been a good one.
And in Savannah, one afternoon, Jane managed to elude her father's observation, to leave the schooner and to disappear completely. And that night came a letter. She and Miguel Carlos Speranza had been in correspondence all the time, how or through whose connivance is a mystery never disclosed. He had come to Savannah, in accordance with mutual arrangement; they had met, were married, and had gone away together.
"I love you, Father," Jane wrote in the letter. "I love you and Mother so very, VERY much. Oh, PLEASE believe that! But I love him, too. And I could not give him up. You will see why when you know him, really know him. If it were not for you I should be SO happy. I know you can't forgive me now, but some day I am sure you will forgive us both."
Captain Zelotes was far, far from forgiveness as he read that letter. His first mate, who was beside him when he opened and read it, was actually frightened when he saw the look on the skipper's face. "He went white," said the mate; "not pale, but white, same as a dead man, or—or the underside of a flatfish, or somethin'. 'For the Lord sakes, Cap'n,' says I, 'what's the matter?' He never answered me, stood starin' at the letter. Then he looked up, not at me, but as if somebody else was standin' there on t'other side of the cabin table. 'Forgive him!' he says, kind of slow and under his breath. 'I won't forgive his black soul in hell.' When I heard him say it I give you my word my hair riz under my cap. If ever there was killin' in a man's voice and in his looks 'twas in Cap'n Lote's that night. When I asked him again what was the matter he didn't answer any more than he had the first time. A few minutes afterwards he went into his stateroom and shut the door. I didn't see him again until the next mornin'."
Captain Zelotes made no attempt to follow the runaway couple. He did take pains to ascertain that they were legally married, but that was all. He left his schooner in charge of the mate at Savannah and journeyed north to South Harniss and his wife. A week he remained at home with her, then returned to the Olive S. and took up his command and its duties as if nothing had happened. But what had happened changed his whole life. He became more taciturn, a trifle less charitable, a little harder and more worldly. Before the catastrophe he had been interested in business success and the making of money chiefly because of his plans for his daughter's future. Now he worked even harder because it helped him to forget. He became sole owner of the Olive S., then of other schooners. People spoke of him as one destined to become a wealthy man.
Jane lived only a few years after her marriage. She died at the birth of her second child, who died with her. Her first, a boy, was born a year after the elopement. She wrote her mother to tell that news and Olive answered the letter. She begged permission of her husband to invite Jane and the baby to visit the old home. At first Zelotes said no, flatly; the girl had made her bed, let her lie in it. But a year later he had so far relented as to give reluctant consent for Jane and the child to come, provided her condemned husband did not accompany them. "If that low-lived Portygee sets foot on my premises, so help me God, I'll kill him!" declared the captain. In his vernacular all foreigners were "Portygees."
But Jane was as proud and stubborn as he. Where her husband was not welcome she would not go. And a little later she had gone on the longest of all journeys. Speranza did not notify her parents except to send a clipped newspaper account of her death and burial, which arrived a week after the latter had taken place. The news prostrated Olive, who was ill for a month. Captain Zelotes bore it, as he had borne the other great shock, with outward calm and quiet. Yet a year afterward he suddenly announced his determination of giving up the sea and his prosperous and growing shipping business and of spending the rest of his days on the Cape.
Olive was delighted, of course. Riches—that is, more than a comfortable competency—had no temptations for her. The old house, home of three generations of Snows, was painted, repaired and, to some extent, modernized. For another year Captain Zelotes "loafed," as he called it, although others might have considered his activities about the place anything but that. At the end of that year he surprised every one by buying from the heirs of the estate the business equipment of the late Eben Raymond, hardware dealer and lumber merchant of South Harniss, said equipment comprising an office, a store and lumber yards near the railway station. "Got to have somethin' to keep me from gettin' barnacled," declared Captain Lote. "There's enough old hulks rottin' at their moorin's down here as 'tis. I don't know anything about lumber and half as much about hardware, but I cal'late I can learn." As an aid in the learning process he retained as bookkeeper Laban Keeler, who had acted in that capacity for the former proprietor.
The years slipped away, a dozen of them, as smoothly and lazily as South Harniss years have always slipped. Captain Zelotes was past sixty now, but as vigorous as when forty, stubborn as ever, fond of using quarter-deck methods on shore and especially in town-meeting, and very often in trouble in consequence. He was a member of the Board of Selectmen and was in the habit of characterizing those whose opinions differed from his as "narrow-minded." They retorted by accusing him of being "pig-headed." There was some truth on both sides. His detest of foreigners had not abated in the least.
And then, in this December of the year 1910, fell as from a clear sky the legacy of a grandson. From Senor Miguel Carlos Speranza the Snows had had no direct word, had received nothing save the newspaper clipping already mentioned. Olive had never seen him; her husband had seen him only on the occasion of the memorable interview in the hotel room. They never spoke of him, never mentioned him to each other. Occasionally, in the Boston newspapers, his likeness in costume had appeared amid the music notes or theatrical jottings. But these had not been as numerous of late. Of his son, their own daughter's child, they knew nothing; he might be alive or he might be dead. Sometimes Olive found herself speculating concerning him, wondering if he was alive, and if he resembled Jane. But she put the speculation from her thoughts; she could not bear to bring back memories of the old hopes and their bitter ending. Sometimes Captain Lote at his desk in the office of "Z. Snow & Co., Lumber and Builders' Hardware," caught himself dreaming of his idolized daughter and thinking how different the future might have been for him had she married a "white man," the kind of man he had meant for her to marry. There might be grandchildren growing up now, fine boys and girls, to visit the old home at South Harniss. "Ah hum! Well! . . . Labe, how long has this bill of Abner Parker's been hangin' on? For thunder sakes, why don't he pay up? He must think we're runnin' a meetin'-house Christmas tree."
The letter from the lawyer had come first. It was written in New York, was addressed to "Captain Lotus Snow," and began by taking for granted the fact that the recipient knew all about matters of which he knew nothing. Speranza was dead, so much was plain, and the inference was that he had been fatally injured in an automobile accident, "particulars of which you have of course read in the papers." Neither Captain Lote nor his wife had read anything of the kind in the papers. The captain had been very busy of late and had read little except political news, and Mrs. Snow never read of murders and accidents, their details at least. She looked up from the letter, which her husband had hastened home from the office to bring her, with a startled face.
"Oh, Zelotes," she cried, "he's dead!"
The captain nodded.
"Seems so," he said. "That part's plain enough, but go on. The rest of it is what I can't get a hand-hold on. See what you make of the rest of it, Olive."
The rest of it was to the effect that the writer, being Mr. Speranza's business adviser, "that is to say, as much or more so than any one else," had been called in at the time of the accident, had conferred with the injured man, and had learned his last wishes. "He expressed himself coherently concerning his son," went on the letter, "and it is in regard to that son that I am asking an interview with you. I should have written sooner, but have been engaged with matters pertaining to Mr. Speranza's estate and personal debts. The latter seem to be large—"
"I'LL bet you!" observed Captain Zelotes, sententiously, interrupting his wife's reading by pointing to this sentence with a big forefinger.
"'And the estate's affairs much tangled,'" went on Olive, reading aloud. "'It seems best that I should see you concerning the boy at once. I don't know whether or not you are aware that he is at school in ——, New York. I am inclined to think that the estate itself will scarcely warrant the expense of his remaining there. Could you make it convenient to come to New York and see me at once? Or, if not, I shall be in Boston on Friday of next week and can you meet me there? It seems almost impossible for me to come to you just now, and, of course, you will understand that I am acting as a sort of temporary executor merely because Mr. Speranza was formerly my friend and not because I have any pecuniary interest in the settlement of his affairs.
"'Very truly yours,
"'MARCUS W. WEISSMANN.'"
"Weissman! Another Portygee!" snorted Captain Lote.
"But—but what does it MEAN?" begged Mrs. Snow. "Why—why should he want to see you, Zelotes? And the boy—why—why, that's HER boy. It's Janie's boy he must mean, Zelotes."
Her husband nodded.
"Hers and that blasted furriner's," he muttered. "I suppose so."
"Oh, DON'T speak that way, Zelotes! Don't! He's dead."
Captain Lote's lips tightened. "If he'd died twenty years ago 'twould have been better for all hands," he growled.
"Janie's boy!" repeated Olive slowly. "Why—why, he must be a big boy now. Almost grown up."
Her husband did not speak. He was pacing the floor, his hands in his pockets.
"And this man wants to see you about him," said Olive. Then, after a moment, she added timidly: "Are you goin', Zelotes?"
"To New York? To see this lawyer man?"
"I? Not by a jugful! What in blazes should I go to see him for?"
"Well—well, he wants you to, you know. He wants to talk with you about the—the boy."
"It's her boy, Zelotes."
"Humph! Young Portygee!"
"Don't, Zelotes! Please! . . . I know you can't forgive that—that man. We can't either of us forgive him; but—"
The captain stopped in his stride. "Forgive him!" he repeated. "Mother, don't talk like a fool. Didn't he take away the one thing that I was workin' for, that I was plannin' for, that I was LIVIN' for? I—"
She interrupted, putting a hand on his sleeve.
"Not the only thing, dear," she said. "You had me, you know."
His expression changed. He looked down at her and smiled.
"That's right, old lady," he admitted. "I had you, and thank the Almighty for it. Yes, I had you . . . But," his anger returning, "when I think how that damned scamp stole our girl from us and then neglected her and killed her—"
"ZELOTES! How you talk! He DIDN'T kill her. How can you!"
"Oh, I don't mean he murdered her, of course. But I'll bet all I've got that he made her miserable. Look here, Mother, you and she used to write back and forth once in a while. In any one of those letters did she ever say she was happy?"
Mrs. Snow's answer was somewhat equivocal. "She never said she was unhappy," she replied. Her husband sniffed and resumed his pacing up and down.
After a little Olive spoke again.
"New York IS a good ways," she said. "Maybe 'twould be better for you to meet this lawyer man in Boston. Don't you think so?"
Another interval. Then: "Zelotes?"
"Yes," impatiently. "What is it?"
"It's her boy, after all, isn't it? Our grandson, yours and mine. Don't you think—don't you think it's your duty to go, Zelotes?"
Captain Lote stamped his foot.
"For thunderation sakes, Olive, let up!" he commanded. "You ought to know by this time that there's one thing I hate worse than doin' my duty, that's bein' preached to about it. Let up! Don't you say another word."
She did not, having learned much by years of experience. He said the next word on the subject himself. At noon, when he came home for dinner, he said, as they rose from the table: "Where's my suitcase, up attic?"
"Why, yes, I guess likely 'tis. Why?"
Instead of answering he turned to the housekeeper, Mrs. Ellis.
"Rachel," he said, "go up and get that case and fetch it down to the bedroom, will you? Hurry up! Train leaves at half-past two and it's 'most one now."
Both women stared at him. Mrs. Ellis spoke first.
"Why, Cap'n Lote," she cried; "be you goin' away?"
Her employer's answer was crisp and very much to the point. "I am if I can get that case time enough to pack it and make the train," he observed. "If you stand here askin' questions I probably shall stay to home."
The housekeeper made a hasty exit by way of the back stairs. Mrs. Snow still gazed wonderingly at her husband.
"Zelotes," she faltered, "are you—are you—"
"I'm goin' to New York on to-night's boat. I've telegraphed that—that Weiss—Weiss—what-do-you-call-it—that Portygee lawyer—that I'll be to his office to-morrow mornin'."
"But, Zelotes, we haven't scarcely talked about it, you and I, at all. You might have waited till he came to Boston. Why do you go so SOON?"
The captain's heavy brows drew together.
"You went to the dentist's last Friday," he said. "Why didn't you wait till next week?"
"Why—why, what a question! My tooth ached and I wanted to have it fixed quick as possible."
"Um-m, yes. Well, this tooth aches and I want it fixed or hauled out, one or t'other. I want the thing off my mind. . . . Don't TALK to me?" he added, irritably. "I know I'm a fool. And," with a peremptory wave of the hand, "don't you DARE say anything about DUTY!"
He was back again two days later. His wife did not question him, but waited for him to speak. Those years of experience already mentioned had taught her diplomacy. He looked at her and pulled his beard. "Well," he observed, when they were alone together, "I saw him."
"The—the boy?" eagerly.
"No, no! Course not! The boy's at school somewhere up in New York State; how could I see him! I saw that lawyer and I found out about—about the other scamp. He was killed in an auto accident, drunk at the time, I cal'late. Nigh's I can gather he's been drinkin' pretty heavy for the last six or seven years. Always lived high, same as his kind generally does, and spent money like water, I judge—but goin' down hill fast lately. His voice was givin' out on him and he realized it, I presume likely. Now he's dead and left nothin' but trunks full of stage clothes and photographs and," contemptuously, "letters from fool women, and debts—Lord, yes! debts enough."
"But the boy, Zelotes. Janie's boy?"
"He's been at this school place for pretty nigh ten years, so the lawyer feller said. That lawyer was a pretty decent chap, too, for a furriner. Seems he used to know this—Speranza rascal—when Speranza was younger and more decent—if he ever was really decent, which I doubt. But this lawyer man was his friend then and about the only one he really had when he was hurt. There was plenty of make-believe friends hangin' on, like pilot-fish to a shark, for what they could get by spongin' on him, but real friends were scarce."
"And the boy—"
"For the Lord sakes, Mother, don't keep sayin' 'The boy,' 'the boy,' over and over again like a talkin' machine! Let me finish about the father first. This Weis—er—thingamajig—the lawyer, had quite a talk with Speranza afore he died, or while he was dyin'; he only lived a few hours after the accident and was out of his head part of that. But he said enough to let Weiss—er—er—Oh, why CAN'T I remember that Portygee's name?—to let him know that he'd like to have him settle up what was left of his affairs, and to send word to us about—about the boy. There! I hope you feel easier, Mother; I've got 'round to 'the boy' at last."
"But why did he want word sent to us, Zelotes? He never wrote a line to us in his life."
"You bet he didn't!" bitterly; "he knew better. Why did he want word sent now? The answer to that's easy enough. 'Cause he wanted to get somethin' out of us, that's the reason. From what that lawyer could gather, and from what he's found out since, there ain't money enough for the boy to stay another six weeks at that school, or anywhere else, unless the young feller earns it himself. And, leavin' us out of the count, there isn't a relation this side of the salt pond. There's probably a million or so over there in Portygee-land," with a derisive sniff; "those foreigners breed like flies. But THEY don't count."
"But did he want word sent to us about the—"
"Sshh! I'm tellin' you, Olive, I'm tellin' you. He wanted word sent because he was in hopes that we—you and I, Mother—would take that son of his in at our house here and give him a home. The cheek of it! After what he'd done to you and me, blast him! The solid brass nerve of it!"
He stormed up and down the room. His wife did not seem nearly so much disturbed as he at the thought of the Speranza presumption. She looked anxious—yes, but she looked eager, too, and her gaze was fixed upon her husband's face.
"Oh!" she said, softly. "Oh! . . . And—and what did you say, Zelotes?"
"What did I say? What do you suppose I said? I said no, and I said it good and loud, too."
Olive made no comment. She turned away her head, and the captain, who now in his turn was watching her, saw a suspicious gleam, as of moisture, on her cheek. He stopped his pacing and laid a hand on her shoulder.
"There, there, Mother," he said, gently. "Don't cry. He's comin'."
"Comin'?" She turned pale. "Comin'?" she repeated. "Who?"
"That boy! . . . Sshh! shh!" impatiently. "Now don't go askin' me questions or tellin' me what I just said I said. I SAID the right thing, but—Well, hang it all, what else could I DO? I wrote the boy—Albert—a letter and I wrote the boss of the school another one. I sent a check along for expenses and—Well, he'll be here 'most any day now, I shouldn't wonder. And WHAT in the devil are we goin' to do with him?"
His wife did not reply to this outburst. She was trembling with excitement.
"Is—is his name Albert?" she faltered.
"Um-hm. Seems so."
"Why, that's your middle name! Do you—do you s'pose Janie could have named him for—for you?"
"I don't know."
"Of course," with some hesitation, "it may be she didn't. If she'd named him Zelotes—"
"Good heavens, woman! Isn't one name like that enough in the family? Thank the Lord we're spared two of 'em! But there! he's comin'. And when he gets here—then what?"
Olive put her arm about her big husband.
"I hope—yes, I'm sure you did right, Zelotes, and that all's goin' to turn out to be for the best."
"Are you? Well, I ain't sure, not by a thousand fathom."
"He's Janie's boy."
"Yes. And he's that play-actor's boy, too. One Speranza pretty nigh ruined your life and mine, Olive. What'll this one do? . . . Well, God knows, I suppose likely, but He won't tell. All we can do is wait and see. I tell you honest I ain't very hopeful."
A brisk rap on the door; then a man's voice.
"Hello, there! Wake up."
Albert rolled over, opened one eye, then the other and raised himself on his elbow.
"Eh? Wh-what?" he stammered.
"Seven o'clock! Time to turn out."
The voice was his grandfather's. "Oh—oh, all right!" he answered.
"Understand me, do you?"
"Yes—yes, sir. I'll be right down."
The stairs creaked as Captain Zelotes descended them. Albert yawned cavernously, stretched and slid one foot out of bed. He drew it back instantly, however, for the sensation was that of having thrust it into a bucket of cold water. The room had been cold the previous evening; plainly it was colder still now. The temptation was to turn back and go to sleep again, but he fought against it. Somehow he had a feeling that to disregard his grandfather's summons would be poor diplomacy.
He set his teeth and, tossing back the bed clothes, jumped to the floor. Then he jumped again, for the floor was like ice. The window was wide open and he closed it, but there was no warm radiator to cuddle against while dressing. He missed his compulsory morning shower, a miss which did not distress him greatly. He shook himself into his clothes, soused his head and neck in a basin of ice water poured from a pitcher, and, before brushing his hair, looked out of the window.
It was a sharp winter morning. The wind had gone down, but before subsiding it had blown every trace of mist or haze from the air, and from his window-sill to the horizon every detail was clean cut and distinct. He was looking out, it seemed, from the back of the house. The roof of the kitchen extension was below him and, to the right, the high roof of the barn. Over the kitchen roof and to the left he saw little rolling hills, valleys, cranberry swamps, a pond. A road wound in and out and, scattered along it, were houses, mostly white with green blinds, but occasionally varied by the gray of unpainted, weathered shingles. A long, low-spreading building a half mile off looked as if it might be a summer hotel, now closed and shuttered. Beyond it was a cluster of gray shanties and a gleam of water, evidently a wharf and a miniature harbor. And, beyond that, the deep, brilliant blue of the sea. Brown and blue were the prevailing colors, but, here and there, clumps and groves of pines gave splashes of green.
There was an exhilaration in the crisp air. He felt an unwonted liveliness and a desire to be active which would have surprised some of his teachers at the school he had just left. The depression of spirits of which he had been conscious the previous night had disappeared along with his premonitions of unpleasantness. He felt optimistic this morning. After giving his curls a rake with the comb, he opened the door and descended the steep stairs to the lower floor.
His grandmother was setting the breakfast table. He was a little surprised to see her doing it. What was the use of having servants if one did the work oneself? But perhaps the housekeeper was ill.
"Good morning," he said.
Mrs. Snow, who had not heard him enter, turned and saw him. When he crossed the room, she kissed him on the cheek.
"Good morning, Albert," she said. "I hope you slept well."
Albert replied that he had slept very well indeed. He was a trifle disappointed that she made no comment on his promptness in answering his grandfather's summons. He felt such promptness deserved commendation. At school they rang two bells at ten minute intervals, thus giving a fellow a second chance. It had been a point of senior etiquette to accept nothing but that second chance. Here, apparently, he was expected to jump at the first. There was a matter of course about his grandmother's attitude which was disturbing.
She went on setting the table, talking as she did so.
"I'm real glad you did sleep," she said. "Some folks can hardly ever sleep the first night in a strange room. Zelotes—I mean your grandpa—'s gone out to see to the horse and feed the hens and the pig. He'll be in pretty soon. Then we'll have breakfast. I suppose you're awful hungry."
As a matter of fact he was not very hungry. Breakfast was always a more or less perfunctory meal with him. But he was surprised to see the variety of eatables upon that table. There were cookies there, and doughnuts, and even half an apple pie. Pie for breakfast! It had been a newspaper joke at which he had laughed many times. But it seemed not to be a joke here, rather a solemn reality.
The kitchen door opened and Mrs. Ellis put in her head. To Albert's astonishment the upper part of the head, beginning just above the brows, was swathed in a huge bandage. The lower part was a picture of hopeless misery.
"Has Cap'n Lote come in yet?" inquired the housekeeper, faintly.
"Not yet, Rachel," replied Mrs. Snow. "He'll be here in a minute, though. Albert's down, so you can begin takin' up the things."
The head disappeared. A sigh of complete wretchedness drifted in as the door closed. Albert looked at his grandmother in alarm.
"Is she sick?" he faltered.
"Who? Rachel? No, she ain't exactly sick . . . Dear me! Where did I put that clean napkin?"
The boy stared at the kitchen door. If his grandmother had said the housekeeper was not exactly dead he might have understood. But to say she was not exactly sick—
"But—but what makes her look so?" he stammered. "And—and what's she got that on her head for? And she groaned! Why, she MUST be sick!"
Mrs. Snow, having found the clean napkin, laid it beside her husband's plate.
"No," she said calmly. "It's one of her sympathetic attacks; that's what she calls 'em, sympathetic attacks. She has 'em every time Laban Keeler starts in on one of his periodics. It's nerves, I suppose. Cap'n Zelotes—your grandfather—says it's everlastin' foolishness. Whatever 'tis, it's a nuisance. And she's so sensible other times, too."
Albert was more puzzled than ever. Why in the world Mrs. Ellis should tie up her head and groan because the little Keeler person had gone on a spree was beyond his comprehension.
His grandmother enlightened him a trifle.
"You see," she went on, "she and Laban have been engaged to be married ever since they were young folks. It's Laban's weakness for liquor that's kept 'em apart so long. She won't marry him while he drinks and he keeps swearin' off and then breaking down. He's a good man, too; an awful good man and capable as all get-out when he's sober. Lately that is, for the last seven or eight years, beginnin' with the time when that lecturer on mesmerism and telegraphy—no, telepathy—thought-transfers and such—was at the town hall—Rachel has been havin' these sympathetic attacks of hers. She declares that alcohol-takin' is a disease and that Laban suffers when he's tipsy and that she and he are so bound up together that she suffers just the same as he does. I must say I never noticed him sufferin' very much, not at the beginnin,' anyhow—acts more as he was havin' a good time—but she seems to. I don't wonder you smile," she added. "'Tis funny, in a way, and it's queer that such a practical, common-sense woman as Rachel Ellis is, should have such a notion. It's hard on us, though. Don't say anything to her about it, and don't laugh at her, whatever you do."
Albert wanted to laugh very much. "But, Mrs. Snow—" he began.
"Mercy sakes alive! You ain't goin' to call me 'Mrs. Snow,' I hope."
"No, of course not. But, Grandmother why do you and Captain—you and Grandfather keep her and Keeler if they are so much trouble? Why don't you let them go and get someone else?"
"Let 'em go? Get someone else! Why, we COULDN'T get anybody else, anyone who would be like them. They're almost a part of our family; that is, Rachel is, she's been here since goodness knows when. And, when he's sober Laban almost runs the lumber business. Besides, they're nice folks—almost always."
Plainly the ways of South Harniss were not the ways of the world he had known. Certainly these people were "Rubes" and queer Rubes, too. Then he remembered that two of them were his grandparents and that his immediate future was, so to speak, in their hands. The thought was not entirely comforting or delightful. He was still pondering upon it when his grandfather came in from the barn.
The captain said good morning in the same way he had said good night, that is, he and Albert shook hands and the boy was again conscious of the gaze which took him in from head to foot and of the quiet twinkle in the gray eyes.
"Sleep well, son?" inquired Captain Zelotes.
"Yes . . . Yes, sir."
"That's good. I judged you was makin' a pretty good try at it when I thumped on your door this mornin'. Somethin' new for you to be turned out at seven, eh?"
"Eh? It wasn't?"
"No, sir. The rising bell rang at seven up at school. We were supposed to be down at breakfast at a quarter past."
"Humph! You were, eh? Supposed to be? Does that mean that you were there?"
There was a surprised look in the gray eyes now, a fact which Albert noticed with inward delight. He had taken one "rise" out of his grandfather, at any rate. He waited, hoping for another opportunity, but it did not come. Instead they sat down to breakfast.
Breakfast, in spite of the morning sunshine at the windows, was somewhat gloomy. The homesickness, although not as acute as on the previous night, was still in evidence. Albert felt lost, out of his element, lonely. And, to add a touch of real miserableness, the housekeeper served and ate like a near relative of the deceased at a funeral feast. She moved slowly, she sighed heavily, and the bandage upon her forehead loomed large and portentous. When spoken to she seldom replied before the third attempt. Captain Zelotes lost patience.
"Have another egg?" he roared, brandishing the spoon containing it at arm's length and almost under her nose. "Egg! Egg! EGG! If you can't hear it, smell it. Only answer, for heaven sakes!"
The effect of this outburst was obviously not what he had hoped. Mrs. Ellis stared first at the egg quivering before her face, then at the captain. Then she rose and marched majestically to the kitchen. The door closed, but a heartrending sniff drifted in through the crack. Olive laid down her knife and fork.
"There!" she exclaimed, despairingly. "Now see what you've done. Oh, Zelotes, how many times have I told you you've got to treat her tactful when she's this way?"
Captain Lote put the egg back in the bowl.
"DAMN!" he observed, with intense enthusiasm.
His wife shook her head.
"Swearin' don't help it a mite, either," she declared. "Besides I don't know what Albert here must think of you." Albert, who, between astonishment and a wild desire to laugh, was in a critical condition, appeared rather embarrassed. His grandfather looked at him and smiled grimly.
"I cal'late one damn won't scare him to death," he observed. "Maybe he's heard somethin' like it afore. Or do they say, 'Oh, sugar!' up at that school you come from?" he added.
Albert, not knowing how to reply, looked more embarrassed than ever. Olive seemed on the point of weeping.
"Oh, Zelotes, how CAN you!" she wailed. "And to-day, of all days! His very first mornin'!"
Captain Lote relented.
"There, there, Mother!" he said. "I'm sorry. Forget it. Sorry if I shocked you, Albert. There's times when salt-water language is the only thing that seems to help me out . . . Well, Mother, what next? What'll we do now?"
"You know just as well as I do, Zelotes. There's only one thing you can do. That's go out and beg her pardon this minute. There's a dozen places she could get right here in South Harniss without turnin' her hand over. And if she should leave I don't know WHAT I'd do."
"Leave! She ain't goin' to leave any more'n than the ship's cat's goin' to jump overboard. She's been here so long she wouldn't know how to leave if she wanted to."
"That don't make any difference. The pitcher that goes to the well—er—er—"
She had evidently forgotten the rest of the proverb. Her husband helped her out.
"Flocks together or gathers no moss, or somethin', eh? All right, Mother, don't fret. There ain't really any occasion to, considerin' we've been through somethin' like this at least once every six months for ten years."
"Zelotes, won't you PLEASE go and ask her pardon?"
The captain pushed back his chair. "I'll be hanged if it ain't a healthy note," he grumbled, "when the skipper has to go and apologize to the cook because the cook's made a fool of herself! I'd like to know what kind of rum Labe drinks. I never saw any but his kind that would go to somebody else's head. Two people gettin' tight and only one of 'em drinkin' is somethin'—"
He disappeared into the kitchen, still muttering. Mrs. Snow smiled feebly at her grandson.
"I guess you think we're funny folks, Albert," she said. "But Rachel is one hired help in a thousand and she has to be treated just so."
Five minutes later Cap'n 'Lote returned. He shrugged his shoulders and sat down at his place.
"All right, Mother, all right," he observed. "I've been heavin' ile on the troubled waters and the sea's smoothin' down. She'll be kind and condescendin' enough to eat with us in a minute or so."
She was. She came into the dining-room with the air of a saint going to martyrdom and the remainder of the meal was eaten by the quartet almost in silence. When it was over the captain said:
"Well, Al, feel like walkin', do you?"
"Why, why, yes, sir, I guess so."
"Humph! You don't seem very wild at the prospect. Walkin' ain't much in your line, maybe. More used to autoin', perhaps?"
Mrs. Snow put in a word. "Don't talk so, Zelotes," she said. "He'll think you're makin' fun of him."
"Who? Me? Not a bit of it. Well, Al, do you want to walk down to the lumber yard with me?"
The boy hesitated. The quiet note of sarcasm in his grandfather's voice was making him furiously angry once more, just as it had done on the previous night.
"Do you want me to?" he asked, shortly.
"Why, yes, I cal'late I do."
Albert, without another word, walked to the hat-rack in the hall and began putting on his coat. Captain Lote watched him for a moment and then put on his own.
"We'll be back to dinner, Mother," he said. "Heave ahead, Al, if you're ready."
There was little conversation between the pair during the half mile walk to the office and yards of "Z. Snow and Co., Lumber and Builders' Hardware." Only once did the captain offer a remark. That was just as they came out by the big posts at the entrance to the driveway. Then he said:
"Al, I don't want you to get the idea from what happened at the table just now—that foolishness about Rachel Ellis—that your grandmother ain't a sensible woman. She is, and there's no better one on earth. Don't let that fact slip your mind."
Albert, somewhat startled by the abruptness of the observation, looked up in surprise. He found the gray eyes looking down at him.
"I noticed you lookin' at her," went on his grandfather, "as if you was kind of wonderin' whether to laugh at her or pity her. You needn't do either. She's kind-hearted and that makes her put up with Rachel's silliness. Then, besides, Rachel herself is common sense and practical nine-tenths of the time. It's always a good idea, son, to sail one v'yage along with a person before you decide whether to class 'em as A. B. or just roustabout."
The blood rushed to the boy's face. He felt guilty and the feeling made him angrier than ever.
"I don't see why," he burst out, indignantly, "you should say I was laughing at—at Mrs. Snow—"
"At your grandmother."
"Well—yes—at my grandmother. I don't see why you should say that. I wasn't."
"Wasn't you? Good! I'm glad of it. I wouldn't, anyhow. She's liable to be about the best friend you'll have in this world."
To Albert's mind flashed the addition: "Better than you, that means," but he kept it to himself.
The lumber yards were on a spur track not very far from the railway station where he had spent that miserable half hour the previous evening. The darkness then had prevented his seeing them. Not that he would have been greatly interested if he had seen them, nor was he more interested now, although his grandfather took him on a personally conducted tour between the piles of spruce and pine and hemlock and pointed out which was which and added further details. "Those are two by fours," he said. Or, "Those are larger joist, different sizes." "This is good, clear stock, as good a lot of white pine as we've got hold of for a long spell." He gave particulars concerning the "handiest way to drive a team" to one or the other of the piles. Albert found it rather boring. He longed to speak concerning enormous lumber yards he had seen in New York or Chicago or elsewhere. He felt almost a pitying condescension toward this provincial grandparent who seemed to think his little piles of "two by fours" so important.
It was much the same, perhaps a little worse, when they entered the hardware shop and the office. The rows and rows of little drawers and boxes, each with samples of its contents—screws, or bolts, or hooks, or knobs—affixed to its front, were even more boring than the lumber piles. There was a countryfied, middle-aged person in overalls sweeping out the shop and Captain Zelotes introduced him.
"Albert," he said, "this is Mr. Issachar Price, who works around the place here. Issy, let me make you acquainted with my grandson, Albert."
Mr. Price, looking over his spectacles, extended a horny hand and observed: "Yus, yus. Pleased to meet you, Albert. I've heard tell of you."
Albert's private appraisal of "Issy" was that the latter was another funny Rube. Whatever Issy's estimate of his employer's grandson might have been, he, also, kept it to himself.
Captain Zelotes looked about the shop and glanced into the office.
"Humph!" he grunted. "No sign or symptoms of Laban this mornin', I presume likely?"
Issachar went on with his sweeping.
"Nary one," was his laconic reply.
"Humph! Heard anything about him?"
Mr. Price moistened his broom in a bucket of water. "I see Tim Kelley on my way down street," he said. "Tim said he run afoul of Laban along about ten last night. Said he cal'lated Labe was on his way. He was singin' 'Hyannis on the Cape' and so Tim figgered he'd got a pretty fair start already."
The captain shook his head. "Tut, tut, tut!" he muttered. "Well, that means I'll have to do office work for the next week or so. Humph! I declare it's too bad just now when I was countin' on him to—" He did not finish the sentence, but instead turned to his grandson and said: "Al, why don't you look around the hardware store here while I open the mail and the safe. If there's anything you see you don't understand Issy'll tell you about it."
He went into the office. Albert sauntered listlessly to the window and looked out. So far as not understanding anything in the shop was concerned he was quite willing to remain in ignorance. It did not interest him in the least. A moment later he felt a touch on his elbow. He turned, to find Mr. Price standing beside him.
"I'm all ready to tell you about it now," volunteered the unsmiling Issy. "Sweepin's all finished up."
Albert was amused. "I guess I can get along," he said.
"I ain't worried none. I don't believe in worryin'; worryin' don't do folks no good, the way I look at it. But long's Cap'n Lote wants me to tell you about the hardware I'd ruther do it now, than any time. Henry Cahoon's team'll be here for a load of lath in about ten minutes or so, and then I'll have to leave you. This here's the shelf where we keep the butts—hinges, you understand. Brass along here, and iron here. Got quite a stock, ain't we."
He took the visitor's arm in his mighty paw and led him from shelves to drawers and from drawers to boxes, talking all the time, so the boy thought, "like a catalogue." Albert tried gently to break away several times and yawned often, but yawns and hints were quite lost on his guide, who was intent only upon the business—and victim—in hand. At the window looking across toward the main road Albert paused longest. There was a girl in sight—she looked, at that distance, as if she might be a rather pretty girl—and the young man was languidly interested. He had recently made the discovery that pretty girls may be quite interesting; and, moreover, one or two of them whom he had met at the school dances—when the young ladies from the Misses Bradshaws' seminary had come over, duly guarded and chaperoned, to one-step and fox-trot with the young gentlemen of the school—one or two of these young ladies had intimated a certain interest in him. So the feminine possibility across the road attracted his notice—only slightly, of course; the sophisticated metropolitan notice is not easily aroused—but still, slightly.